I attended my first Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics conference in New York City this month after my recent training in ketamine-assisted psychotherapy. As a child and adult psychiatrist, in private practice for 25 years, I am excited and hopeful about the burgeoning psychedelic renaissance and its promising mental health benefits. It also reminds me of my first contact with psychedelics many years ago when I almost became a casualty of the Drug War.
In early November of 1979, while attending Boston University, a good buddy asked if I wanted to go see the Grateful Dead play in concert at the former Philadelphia Spectrum. He excitedly told me he had front row seats and that this show was not to be missed. Honestly, I didn’t care so much about the great seats, or even the music of the Dead. Rather, I was thrilled that the coolest guy I had met at college wanted me to accompany him on a musical adventure.
As we approached the coliseum, my friend asked, “Do you want to hold the hits or the money?” Confused, I asked what he meant. He told me he was going to sell hits of acid and wanted to know if I could help him. In a bit of an existential fog, I heard myself say, “I’ll hold the money.”
I have returned often to the memory of that choice as one of my luckiest moments. At the time, I felt proud and excited to be holder of the money. With that excitement, I became bold and exuberant in my quest to help sell the LSD-infused sugar cubes. As cool as my buddy was, I was the opposite. My insecurities played out in my desire to be of service to my friend, who I had placed on a pedestal.
Unfortunately, I acted more like I was selling popcorn and peanuts at a baseball game. Loud and proud. So much so that I attracted the attention of two undercover policemen who were on the lookout for people selling counterfeit tee-shirts. After correcting the unknown officer twice – “No, I’m selling hits, not tee-shirts” – it finally dawned on me that I was in jeopardy.
I immediately started to walk away. Realizing I was next to my buddy who was holding the hits, I briskly walked in a direction perpendicular to him. The officers stopped me and were clearly surprised and disappointed after searching my bag and finding no drugs or counterfeit tee-shirts.
I shudder at the thought of how radically different my life would be if I had been arrested in 1979 for distribution of a Schedule I drug. Many young people have found themselves caught up in the criminal justice system for selling or using psychedelic substances, and that experience often had a dramatic impact on their lives and their futures.
I went on to complete college and train as a physician. I feel fortunate that my career as a psychiatrist, specializing in treating trauma, has set me on course to have a positive impact on the health and well-being of those in greatest need.
In addition to being able to prescribe drugs to treat mental health conditions , I have learned many modalities to help in ways medication does not cover. While EMDR, Somatic Experiencing and Internal Family Systems are wonderful resources that have helped me treat traumatized patients, oftentimes these techniques still fall short of full healing.
On day two of the Horizons conference, in a packed room where the business forum for psychedelics was being held, it felt like the very beginning of something globally important. I was surprised by how much work has been done, and infrastructure put in place, to support this goal.
The nascent stage we were all experiencing is indebted to the likes of Rick Doblin, the executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Incredibly, MAPS is presently in Phase 3 trials with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of PTSD with optimistic results. In addition, the State of Oregon recently passed Measure 109 that allows the therapeutic use of psilocybin, the mushroom cure. These are only a few of the many inroads which are allowing hope to flourish in this choir of healers and like-minded humanistic souls.
I felt goosebumps as speaker after speaker spoke about their piece of this unfinished puzzle.
It also feels powerful to be in touch with that younger part of myself, still shaking from the possible ramifications of my innocent yet misguided choice that allowed my hunger for connection to get in the way of my well-being. Had my luck been different that day, my opportunities to work with psychedelic-assisted therapies almost certainly would have been out of reach.
The Toll of the Drug War
Unfortunately, others have not been as lucky as I was. I later learned that under the mayorship from 1972-1980 of former Philadelphia police commissioner Frank Rizzo, law enforcement took a heavy-handed approach to young people attending Spectrum concerts, resulting in the harassment, arrest and incarceration of concertgoers.
The targeting of drug users continues. According to data published in 2020, 450,000 people are “incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses on any given day.” In 2020, 1,155,610 people were arrested for drug law violations, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. The War on Drugs disportionately targets minorities. Black people make up 24% of those arrested, despite the fact that they comprise 13% of the population, and are documented as using and selling drugs at similar rates to white people.
These statistics are not surprising in light of Richard Nixon’s policy advisor John Ehrlichman’s admission in a 1994 interview, in which he revealed that the War on Drugs was a veiled effort to target Black people and leftist activists.
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing them both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” said Ehrlichman.
On the last day of the conference, we were all treated to a special moment when William Leonard Pickard, a high profile victim of the drug war, graced the stage for what turned out to be the highlight of the week.
An LSD manufacturer, Pickard was convicted in what became the largest LSD bust in DEA history, and given two life sentences in 2001. He was released in 2020 on compassionate grounds, with the pandemic and his advanced age of 76 playing a role in the decision.
While enduring the daily horrors of prison, Pickard practiced hours of Zen meditation, taught fellow inmates how to read, and hand wrote The Rose of Paracelsus: On Secrets and Sacraments, a book regarded by many as a psychedelic masterpiece.
As this tall, thin, gray-haired man with a sweet voice entranced everyone with his story – which included tenderly acute observations on the psychology of incarceration – it was difficult to imagine that he was once dubbed America’s “Acid King.” Growing up in an era of overt drug propaganda, I was taught to believe a moniker like that couldn’t be given to someone with Pickard’s warmth, compassion and intelligence.
I felt angry while imagining this special man being locked away for life, as if he were a menace to society, rather than celebrated as a manufacturer of the type of drug that can help many of us heal from the ills of society.
Today, activists within psychedelic communities are working towards reforming harmful drug policies that can potentially ruin lives. Plant medicines, and in some cases all drugs, have been already decriminalized in cities and states nationwide, such as Denver, Oakland, Santa Cruz, and Washington D.C. Efforts are ongoing, with decriminalization efforts in various states growing across the nation.
Thanks to the efforts of those working to make these substances available in clinical environments, such as MAPS, as well as community-based, recreational contexts that exist outside of medicalized spaces, we are on the precipice of helping human beings in ways previously unimaginable.
I only pray that the powers that be, that have historically politicized and criminalized these transformative substances, don’t act as nearsighted as I did way back in the parking lot of the now razed Philadelphia Spectrum.